• Public information
Never has so much information been so readily and quickly available to many people. Never.
Barely two decades ago, to have such a vast amount of material accessible through a computer and keyboard on one’s desk was almost inconceivable. And that pool of information is growing by the minute.
Does having this much stored information make the journalist’s job of reporting harder or easier. Both.
Journalists have more information than ever to work with, but they also have more information to assess and decipher. As with anyone else who has a high-speed Internet connection, a good search engine, and a few key terms, journalists can be quickly overwhelmed with information – or, at least, the possibilities of information.
Journalists conquer this mountain of data with a few principles, some basic understanding of stored information and some procedural standards:
Not all information that is stored and available is equal. Some of it is good and useful. Some of it – sometimes a great deal of it – is not. Here are some of the problems that journalists find with stored information:
— Some of it is simply wrong.
— Stored information sources may be incomplete or misfiled or mis-categorized.
— Some information may be out of date.
— Some stored information may be easy to misinterpret because it lacks the proper context.
Permission to use information generally available to the public is usually not required. That is to say that if you can find it as a journalist, you can use the information. You do not have to ask permission to do so. But, as a journalist you must attribute information to its source – that is, you have to tell where you got the information – and if you are going to quote the information directly (use the exact words of the source) you have to use quotation marks around those words and tell where they came from. Journalists (and students) who do not follow this procedure can be guilty of plagiarism.
This does not apply to pictures. If you want to use a picture, you should always – always – ask permission from the person or organization that owns the picture.
Information from expert or official sources is preferred. We discussed what we mean by “expert” and “official” in Module 2.4 Sources of information <link>. Many of the references there applied to people. The same things can be said about stored information. For instance, information that has passed muster from government, university or scholarly web sites and other sources is sought out by journalists over information presented by those who have no or few credentials.
The more recent the information, the better – usually. Journalists want the most up-to-date information that is available. Timeliness is an important value to the journalist. It may also be assumed that the latest information will include or take into account earlier information. But as with all information, journalists need to be careful in their research and check earlier versions of information if they are available to see if there are changes, contradictions or corrections.
Information gleaned from various sources is generally better than information from a single source. As with information from people, information from stored sources has more credibility if it comes from various sources or is confirmed by independent sources. To read the same thing in two different books by two authors who have no connection with each other enhances the information’s reliability. Journalists should actively try to confirm information if that is possible.
Good journalists who gather information from stored sources usually try to confirm it with a personal source. Having a person verify the information that you are reading helps its believability. Plus, the person can clarify and expand the information and possibly can provide even more up-to-date information.
Information from stored sources need to be attributed, just as information from live sources needs attribution. Part of the journalist’s job, as we have said over and over, is to verify information and to tell the audience where that information comes from. That is the discipline of journalism that separates it from other forms of communication. This applies as much to stored information as it does to information from any other source.
Skepticism. Just as journalists have it for what they hear from sources, they should also have it for what they read from stored sources. Just because something is written down in a book or magazine or posted on a web site does not mean that it is correct. Journalists should always be looking for the flaws, shortcoming, or lack of logic in anything they read.
Journalists and the general public have the right to some information. Some of this information comes from government sources, and it is the responsibility of government organizations to make it available. The Federal government has the Freedom of Information Act that mandates that government agencies respond to requests for information. Journalists have use the Freedom of Information Act to get a wide variety of records and documents that agencies have created or collected.
Many state and local governments have similar law that tell city and county agencies, school boards, zoning boards and other governmental groups that they must provide information to the public about what they are doing and what policies they are making. These laws are generally grouped under the name of open records laws, and journalists should be familiar with the laws in their states and local areas.
In general, the legal system in America is an open one. That is, you can attend a trial or court hearing and you can see certain court documents without asking for any special permission. It is important for the legal system to operate in the open so that people will believe that it is fair and that the laws are being applied impartially. While there are some instances where court hearings are close – most notably when juveniles are charged with a crime – courts and court records remain available to the public.
Finally, laws demand that many business provide information to the public. For instance, any company that has publicly traded stock must publish an annual report, and that report must contain certain information about the company’s operation, including general financial information. Organizations that have non-profit status are also required to disclose certain information about how they operation, who is in charge, and how much money those people make. Again, journalists should be familiar with the law that make these requirements as they seek information in their reporting.
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